One of the things that keeps us going back to the theatre is the pursuit of a feeling. Drama exists to educate, to inform, inspire and entertain, to help us to develop empathy with communities and lifestyles we may not otherwise encounter and to understand more about the world now but also in the past and even the future. We can enjoy its humour, grapple with its debates and intellectualise its messages and there are plenty of shows that offer some or all of these things. But there are a heady few that do something more, that escape the boundaries of their medium and leave you a little breathless, and everyone will have a small selection of plays that live on as pure sensation.
Recall them now and of course the quality of the production choices come to mind but so too does a surge of feeling that is undimmed by the vagaries of memory; a fizz of excitement or stirred emotion taking you right back to those giddy disorientating moments as the curtain fell and the hours or even days afterwards when you try to process its effects. The pursuit of that rare but consuming feeling is what keeps us going back to the theatre, to shows like the bewildering tragedy of Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge, the heart-rending ache of Rebecca Frecknell’s Summer and Smoke, the joy of live theatre resurrected in Regent’s Park contemporary Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert or the thrilling urban energy and poetic beauty of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac, shows that you didn’t just watched but lived every second of.
While digital theatre has had its detractors we forget that live theatre could also be a sometimes passive affair in which the viewer quietly receives the performance in the moment but remains detached from the action. With a busy cultural scene, a range of shows were on offer, some bad, many fine, good, excellent even, yet the audience remained firmly on the other side of the fourth wall. A screen needn’t be any more of a barrier to intimacy or connection and, as with live theatre, the experience of streaming can and does vary considerably. In a year of learning and trial and error, there have been a few that have made the transition by using and existing beyond the boundaries of their medium, allowing you to absorbingly experience the story along with the characters.
Late last year the Old Vic staged a production of Faith Healer that so brilliantly understood how a film created live could magnify the intense intimacy of Friel’s play that it made the distance between actors and viewers irrelevant, giving the four monologues a greater collective power than they would have in a vast auditorium. Now, the Almeida Theatre has found the same resonance for its first fully digital production Hymn, a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti, live streamed over five nights, in which there is a growing recognition that filming a play is more than setting up cameras but using them and carefully plotted direction to enhance both the shape and flow of the story.
Hymn is an heartfelt story of friendship, family and the deceit of middle age in which two brothers meet for the first time at their father’s funeral having lived for almost 50 years with no knowledge of one another. Chakrabarti has crafted something quite special, a two-hander that simultaneously exists in a small, domestic world as two quite different families are rapidly but openly drawn into each other’s lives, while addressing major themes around modern masculinity, performative social roles, class and opportunity that profoundly shape the lives of Gil and Benny over the course of a year. Hymn is a play that asks some profound questions about how well we know the people we love or even ourselves as the characters navigate external expectations and their own sense of good judgement.
Chakrabarti’s 90-minute play uses a fluid structure that runs scenes together with little more than a breath between, relying on the viewer to notice subtle cues and changes of tone that indicate months passing, closer ties developing and the changing pattern of behaviour as notions of power and responsibility shift between the educated, successful Gil and the hardworking modesty of Benny. Chakrabarti deliberately avoids unnecessary exposition or the need to colour-in every nuance of this developing relationship and instead provides a series of snapshots, of moments in time between the brothers where their connection is forged, tested and moulded, turning points that will profoundly affect them both. And in spite of this more fractured structure, the combined effect of these scenes gives Hymn a greater emotional heft adding depth and complexity to the unfolding relationship that may skim on the practical details of their integration but holds-on to the genuine bond that develops between the men.
That bond is crucial to the success of Hymn and Chakrabarti adds a Blood Brothers spin to draw parallels between the lives of two men born within a few weeks of one another and whose fate is ultimately decided by their sudden knowledge of the other’s existence. While Benny and Gil are nervous around one another, even a little suspicious to begin with, is entirely natural but they are soon established as the missing piece of each other that despite wives, children, sisters and parents of whom we hear much but never see, both men come to retrospectively recognise an absence in their lives that only their brother can fill, an experience that becomes restorative and calming to them both.
The exploration of fathers, sons and brothers within Hymn is nuanced and intricate, motored by the reaction to their deceased father whose funeral opens the show. Gil’s oration is filled with respect for a great man, a pillar of the community that his son describes as a supportive hero yet soon Chakrabati is tearing at this image, forcing Gil to contend with the falsity of the life his father led and instead face his knowing abandonment of Benny’s mother as well as the controlling forcefulness of a personality that scars Gil who has devoted his life to trying to impress and satisfy his dominant parent.
The way in which conflicting masculinities contend across Hymn is particularly fascinating; this notion of success or at least maintaining the appearance of it seems to occupy both Gil and his father who hid his shameful secrets while chiding his son’s lack of business acumen. Benny has no clear feeling of resentment towards his absent father but is deeply afflicted by a fluctuating relationship with his own son Louis who rages against Benny’s political passivity, while the connection with Gil exists through extreme expression of manly strength in a boxing club, a shared love of funk and early hip hop, as well as an unexpected honesty about their emotional struggles with family and work. Neither man is entirely open, nor are they completely reticent but spar and share in equal measure, mixing traditional and more contemporary concepts and expectations of masculinity that continually change the tone of this extended duologue as the men and the audience get to know them better.
As a digital experience, Hymn really comes alive in an long middle section in which the brothers wander down memory lane and back to their 80s childhoods. That they loved the same things but never knew each other has a slightly tragic edge but the energy of this scene leaps from the screen as they dance, sing and enjoy each other’s company. Dressing-up in silly outfits, wigs and sparkly jackets, they play and joke as though they were teenagers again, riffing together, entirely in tune as Chakrabati once again explores the unexpected symmetry of their personalities. This connection with music that feeds through Hymn – even extending to Benny’s children being given the names of jazz legends Miles, Louis and Ella – gives a liveliness to the show that draws the audience into their happiness. The warmth of their attachment and the joy it gives them both is infectious, if only it could last.
That this scene comes in the middle of the play can only mean that a cliff edge awaits. The switch, when it comes, is sudden and grave, quickly jettisoning the characters by suggesting how little they really know one another. The control of tone owes much to Blanche McIntyre’s smart direction and, with increasing numbers of pre-recorded shows available in this lockdown, the frisson of live performance adds much to the impact that Hymn creates, not least in the technical decisions required to manage scene breaks and set changes in real time.
What McIntyre does with her camera brings the same immediacy that the Old Vic found in Faith Healer using shot selection and framing to overcome the required distance between the actors who can never touch or stand close enough to convey their burgeoning relationship and how passionately they need it. That you stop noticing those restrictions and become absorbed in the experience of this play is testament to McIntyre’s choices and the performances. Those lingering, intrusive close-up capture long reactions which can sometimes act as filmic slight of hand, allowing costume and set changes to occur. But McIntrye uses the camera to reflect the purpose of each scene, not merely cutting between the actors democratically but tracking the ebb and flow of emotion, knowing when a conversation is designed to reveal Benny rather than Gil, and training her cameras unforgivingly on his every reaction. For the actors this visibility during every moment of their 90-minute performance is pure theatre.
The combination of Danny Sapani and Adrian Lester in the leading roles is electrifying as their characters travel quite different but related paths in discovering their true selves. Lester’s Gil is the senior partner for much of the play, financially secure, confident and surrounded by an uncomplicated, loving family that enjoys a supportive sibling rivalry. Gil’s ease with himself is slowly tempered by Lester as cracks appear in the facade revealing a complex relationship with his father, a need to independently prove his credentials and the hints of suffocation even emasculation that being surrounded by powerful women creates. The untrammelled joy Lester expresses in the dance scenes with Benny is extraordinary, the rapid thawing of suspicion and intense bond of the brothers reveals an absence in Gil that he never knew, a need for male support that liberates him as much as their inebriating dreams for the future eventually reveal his weakness.
Sapani will entirely break your heart as a man who has known nothing but struggle and so ground down by the difficulties of life that even stepping forward to claim a place in the Jones family is inconceivable. Everything about Benny feels fragile, forever teetering on the brink of collapse be it his mother’s mental health, his son’s rage or his own precarious financial circumstances. Yet, Sapani lets Benny be blinded by Gil’s confidence, swept along in the sweetness of being with someone who understands and cares for him, wanting to know a fraction of the peace of mind that Gil implies. And while Benny may be more emotional he is also more grounded, come what may you know he will somehow make it through to deliver the play’s final speech, one in which Sapani will leave you sobbing.
There is an inevitability to the outcome of Hymn which the audience will spot very quickly, but it hardly matters amidst the thrill of watching a production with such transcending energy. While the structure deliberately skips time leaving many questions unanswered, the cumulative effect of this relationship and the void that both characters discover that becomes a desperate need for connection is moving and memorable. The Almeida Theatre’s long anticipated reopening may have been interrupted after only a few days in December but their sophisticated arrival in the live streamed digital content space celebrates the power of live theatre. You will remember this feeling.